Upland farmers need proper budget to reward already plentiful supply of 'public goods'

Productivity improvements to offset any loss of the 3.2bn spent on UK agriculture under the European Unions Common Agricultural Policy are unlikely to be big on upland farms, agricultural experts warned. Picture by James Hardisty.
Productivity improvements to offset any loss of the 3.2bn spent on UK agriculture under the European Unions Common Agricultural Policy are unlikely to be big on upland farms, agricultural experts warned. Picture by James Hardisty.

Upland farming is already delivering a plethora of “public goods” but the expertise to manage the land will be lost without long-term public funding, a new report warns.

Farmland could be abandoned or become more intensively managed without an appropriate economic support model as direct payments are phased out, experts said.

Teesdale farmer Richard Betton, board member of the Northern Upland Chain Local Nature Partnership. Picture courtesy of the National Farmers' Union.

Teesdale farmer Richard Betton, board member of the Northern Upland Chain Local Nature Partnership. Picture courtesy of the National Farmers' Union.

Direct payments, made under the Basic Payment Scheme, account for 91 per cent of the average farm business income for a Less Favoured Area (LFA) grazing livestock farm in the uplands, according to the most up-to-date Defra figures.

But as yet, no set budget has been determined for government spending on agriculture after direct payments have been phased out completely – as is proposed – by 2027.

According to the report prepared by ADAS, the UK’s largest independent agricultural and environmental consultancy: “Farming in the uplands is unlikely to be viable in the long-term without public support.

“Without upland farming there would be a loss of traditional skills and innate knowledge on the management of the local landscape, which is necessary for delivery of a wide range of public goods.”

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Commissioned by the Northern Upland Chain Local Nature Partnership (NUCLNP) with funding from the National Farmers’ Union (NFU), the report warns that productivity improvements to offset any loss of the £3.2bn spent on UK agriculture under the European Union’s Common Agricultural Policy are unlikely to be “big” on upland farms, due to limitations of the land and a reliance on volatile commodity markets.

The document, which explores the role of ‘high nature value’ farming systems across parts of North Yorkshire, Northumberland, Cumbria, Lancashire, Tyne and Wear and the Tees Valley and Durham, suggests that upland farms in the NUCLNP area already provide many public goods, including carbon sequestration, amenity value, biodiversity, landscape appearance and clean water provision that need to be adequately funded in the future.

These goods are ready to be used to develop new economic models that can underpin high nature value upland farming in a way that prevents “potentially detrimental landscape scale farm system changes such as abandonment or intensification”, ADAS states.

NUCLNP board member and Teesdale farmer Richard Betton, who helped launch the report at this week’s Nidderdale Show in Pateley Bridge, said: “If the transition out of the Common Agricultural Policy and into ‘public money for public goods’ goes wrong, upland farmers will struggle to stay afloat.

“But if we get it right, upland farmers will be in a better position than they are in now.

“We can produce a great deal for the nation – quality food and a quality environment – but the public, via the policymakers and politicians, must be prepared to pay a decent price.

“Sufficient value must be put on the public goods produced by high nature farmers in the uplands.”

ADAS highlight that there are opportunities for upland farmers to improve production efficiency, even if they are unlikely to compensate for the removal of direct payments.

There may be opportunities to do so by using technology or “novel techniques”, decreasing inputs, working more collaboratively with other farmers by, for example, sharing machinery, linking with supply chains and adding value to products, as well as via private investment to fund specific “ecosystems services” by farmers.

But it warns that most farmers in the NUCLNP are “very unlikely” to improve productivity by increasing production.

Adam Bedford, the NFU’s regional director, welcomed the report, saying it highlights the “considerable benefits already delivered by our hill farmers and the potential for them to help tackle some of the big challenges facing our nation”.

“Harnessing their wealth of knowledge and practical skills will be vital in developing and delivering future land management policies, but there is also the recognition that a new system for recognising and rewarding farmers for the environment work they do will be essential. That is certainly true if we want to see our upland areas thrive in the future and attract the next generation of farmers,” Mr Bedford said.

David Hill, chairman of the NUCLNP, added: “It is critically important, both from the perspective of biodiversity conservation and maintaining farming livelihoods, that substantial funding is invested into the uplands by paying farmers under contract to deliver environmental gain.

“We welcome the ADAS report which has identified the issues going forwards and what needs to be done to secure a future for the uplands.”

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